The house, littered with debris, was in one of the blighted neighborhoods still making New Orleans a checkerboard of haves and have-nots. Most of the homes were still boarded up with plywood, front doors spray-painted with a big X by the National Guard in 2005 when it was making a house-by-house search for survivors. The dead woman, a blond twenty-something, hung upside down from an exposed rafter in the attic – the ceiling and part of the roof had been blown away by Katrina – rope cinched around her feet, long hair almost touching the floor. It was hot as hell – June in the Big Easy is a lesson in repentance – and I had to move to one of the broken windows to get some air since the house had long since been consumed by mold.
Something in the back of the house moved. Footsteps maybe, or someone crawling along the floor. Maybe a shoe accidentally pushing aside a fragment of drywall or a two-by-four lying on the cracked cement foundation. I drew my Glock 30 from its shoulder holster, held my breath, and crept down the hallway. Crack dealers, whores, the homeless, and just about anyone who wanted to become invisible had inherited the earth around New Orleans – ten thousand abandoned properties – but the new tenants weren’t so meek. In some cases, the houses themselves were rendered invisible due to unchecked weeds and overgrown bushes. Blighted neighborhoods in New Orleans gave the term "urban jungle” an entirely new meaning.
A scratching sound, like fingers pushing sandpaper.
I raised my right forearm until my limb formed a ninety-degree angle at the elbow, the Glock pointed at the roof. I didn’t want to blow away a few runaway teens who wanted to smoke some dope or unwrap the tin foil encasing a golden ring of latex. Whoever was in the back could have climbed through a window, oblivious to the upside-down nude hanging in the living room.
Then again, the nude woman's killer might be waiting for Benjamin Masters to make an appearance, waiting with a semiautomatic weapon to dispatch the P. I. with a penchant for good wine and Armani suits. If he managed to take me down – unlikely – he wouldn't flee into other abandoned neighborhoods in order to blend in with dandelions growing through the floorboards or cement. He'd call every local television station and get his fifteen minutes of fame. Some people liked to throw down the gauntlet and see if they could whack a famous investigator like myself. If the day ever came when an assassin could pose next to my lifeless body – God have mercy on my Armani – I had no doubt that he would be given a book deal and a six-figure advance within hours of being cuffed, printed, and processed.
I had an unorthodox tactic that never failed in situations when I didn't know if I had unwelcome company or not. I would scream like a son of a bitch, scaring the living hell out of my foe before he or she could scare the living hell out of me. I therefore let out a bloodcurdling yell, my arm now lowered and straight, both hands on the Glock to steady its short, black, polymer muzzle.
The gray rat, about eight inches long – port cities grow 'em big – never had a chance. I hit it with one shot before it could cross the doorway six feet straight ahead. The force of the bullet drove the rodent ten feet to the rear, where a mass of blood, bones, and gray fur slammed against the wall.
I hurried into the room, pivoting right and left to make sure that my deceased rodent pal hadn't been frightened by someone in the corner, someone with two legs and a little less hair.
All clear. I then checked the rest of the house. It was empty and decaying. So far, the sole occupants of the abode were a dead woman, an Armani suit, and a rat who'd seen better days.
I'd been summoned to the home in New Orleans East by a text message:
dead body @ 1246 forest lane. have a nice day.
It wasn't the first time a murderer had informed me of his handiwork. Like I said, every now and then an especially devious mind wanted to play Professor Moriarty to my Sherlock Holmes, wanted to see if he could outwit me, Benjamin Masters, who'd solved a few of the city's more baffling homicides. Given enough time, I usually nailed the bastard, but not always. Still, I got my fair share of favorable press and an occasional interview on the six o'clock news. TLC offered to give me my own reality show, their cameras following me as I pursued clues and did my gumshoe work, but I turned them down flat. They said I had the perfect hook: an ex-professor of history at Tulane turned private investigator. That was the last thing I needed – a camera showing my opponents how I worked my mojo.
I stepped back into what had been a living room before August 29, 2005. I rested the back of my right hand against the dead woman's abdomen. It was warm, and blood hadn't started to pool in her head or torso yet. She hadn't been dead very long.
There was no point in having my assistant back at the office trace the text message since it undoubtedly came from a Radio Shack cell loaded with pre-paid minutes. In fact, my assistant had her own burner so she could make anonymous calls on my behalf, such as the one she would place during the next hour to call in the murder. I'd poke around a bit first before the cops rolled into an area seldom patrolled since Katrina. I was on Lieutenant Grant's speed dial, although he usually didn't hit the button unless a precinct captain or the chief himself was unhappy about the progress of any given case.
A large purple bruise was blossoming on the woman's forehead. No surprise. You can't unclothe and string up a beautiful spitfire – her arm and leg muscles were well-toned, and her derriere was as tight as a Bourbon Street stripper's – if she's punching and clawing, so death was probably caused by the proverbial blunt force trauma. The fact that she was hit from the front meant that she probably knew her killer or, at the very least, was surprised by her attacker in a matter of seconds. Otherwise, blood would be congealing on the back of her skull.
She was damned attractive. I could easily imagine her wearing a sleek black dress, hem above the knees, as she ordered a martini at the Napoleon House in the French Quarter. Black stilettos would have completed the look, but she wouldn't be wearing anything so provocative from here on out, and her make-up would consist of embalming wax to bring back the fairness of her skin given what the descending blood in her body would do to her face in the next hour.
Footprints crisscrossed the floor, thick with dust and pulverized concrete, and I knew the prints were fresh. Given the dozen or so broken windows, strong wind and rains – common in June – would have washed away such impressions in a single afternoon. Taking out my cell phone, I snapped shots of the body and the footprints from a dozen different angles.
That's when I noticed the voodoo paraphernalia in the corner.
"Shit!" I muttered.
While a professor at Tulane, I'd written a book titled Louisiana Voodoo, Haitian Voodoo, and their Common Ancestor: West African Vodun. Voodoo was a great deal more complicated than anyone watching a B-list zombie movie could possibly realize. The cops usually called me when the slightest clue in a murder case pointed to voodoo involvement. One in a hundred had a genuine connection to voodoo, however, and I could disappear quite easily when I knew that my talents were being wasted. My assistant usually told Lieutenant Grant that my dear old Aunt Phoebe – Uncle George, Cousin Ralph, whoever – had passed away and that I'd be in Lake Charles for the next week. "Oh, and would you care to send flowers, Lieutenant?" It was a ploy I had to use sparingly, however, for Grant had told me the previous month that, by his reckoning, I'd lost three parents, seven grandparents, and twenty-eight aunts and uncles over the past three years. Jack Grant was a good man, and he knew I was the best P. I. in the southeastern United States. Our friendship was based on mutual respect. I didn't mind helping him out once in a while, but the word "voodoo" made me cringe.
What I saw in the corner didn't impress me in the least. A cinnamon-scented candle sat next to the cranium of a skull, inverted to hold red wine. It was cheap merlot, and I thought the dead body deserved to be in the company of a better vintage. A red snake had been painted on the concrete where the dust had been cleared away. It formed a narrow serpentine line, as if someone had painted six capital S's in a row, one on top of the other, with the top S having a tongue, the bottom S having a tail.
It was all crap. Snakes, candles, and skulls could just as easily be interpreted as the evidence of a Satanic cult as the work of voodoo practitioners except for one detail: a voodoo doll hung upside-down over the candle, an effigy of the real deal hanging a few feet away. That would be enough for Jack Grant to call my office if he didn't find a solid lead in the next seventy-two hours, which he wouldn't. He would call me in, and I would give him the same speech I always gave him or his minions: practitioners of Louisiana voodoo were usually Catholics who liked to dance, make potions and amulets, attend Sunday mass, and open voodoo shops on Bourbon Street. He would tell me to investigate the murder anyway, promising the department's per diem rate for private consultants, plus expenses. I had no interest in the murder, but sometimes Grant didn't give me much of a choice.
My cell vibrated, and I flipped it open to see a new text message. I had a feeling it might be from the same person who'd sent me to New Orleans East in the first place.
your asst. is tied up at the moment. literally. and she's crying really bad.
It had officially become one of those days, a day when I wished I'd stayed at Tulane, an academic safely ensconced behind ivy-covered walls. I got in my dark blue BMW convertible, top down, and drove to my office in the upscale warehouse district, pushing the accelerator to eighty-five mph on I-10 West.
I pulled into the narrow parking lane between two warehouses, one converted to posh apartments, the other to office space. I ran up three flights of stairs – the flippin' elevator took forever – and bolted through the front door, passing from the waiting room into my assistant's office.
She was tied to a chair and gagged, tears smudging her mascara. A hunting knife lay on her desk, and a thin line of blood trickled down her arm. I motioned to the third room – my office – and she shook her head vigorously. No, there was no one there.
I removed the gag from her mouth, an expensive nylon scarf that easily cost two hundred bucks.
"What took you so long?" she asked with a smile.
I knelt next to her leather swivel chair and patted her head.
"How many times have I told you it's not nice to mess with your boss's head?" I asked.
"Apparently not enough," she answered.
"I got a text two hours ago that led me to a murder scene. I thought you were in real trouble this time."
In decades gone by, most private investigators had a girl Friday. I had a girl Tuesday – Tuesday Devereaux, to be exact. She was the proverbial knockout. Long dark hair, eyes so blue that you wanted to swim in them all afternoon, and full red lips. She was slender, but curvy everywhere you wanted to see curves.
"I bet you'd like me to leave you tied up," I said, getting to my feet and wiping the blood from her arm. "Where did you get the knife?"
"It's my nephew's. Realism is everything. And I'm not really tied up, of course. I wouldn't have been able to make a knot in the back, but it was easy to wrap the rope around my body a few times and pull it tight."
"Why do you pull this crap?" I asked.
"Because you're a great private eye," she answered.
"But I'm not your private eye."
"You can't blame a girl for being persistent. One of these days, Ben. Just wait and see. You'll come around."
I didn't blame Tuesday for her repeated attempts to seduce me. If the truth be told, I enjoyed her flirtatious nature, and her perpetual version of romantic cat and mouse was a pleasant sidebar to my more trying days. So why didn't I just give in and bed her? Tuesday was beautiful and intelligent, and she passed the most important litmus test of all. She believed Beethoven's Symphony Number Seven to be his most melodic of all.
The answer was simple: she was an invaluable assistant, so why mess up a great friendship with the trappings of love.
"Call this in," I told Tuesday, giving her the New Orleans East address after she had extricated herself from the ropes. "Use the pre-paid."
"Voodoo?" she asked.
"Or so it seems, with the operative word being ‘seems.' A blonde, around twenty-seven, is dead and hanging from the rafter of a deserted house."
Tuesday called the seventh precinct while sticking out her lips in a I-want-to-kiss-you gesture.
"Any appointments on the book?" I asked.
"Father Ronnie called and wanted to know if you had time to see him this afternoon. Didn't say what it was about."
Father Ronnie Palazolla, Italian as they came, probably wanted to entice me back into the fold. I was a lapsed Catholic for a dozen different reasons, the biggest being my Tibetan excursion a few years earlier. He was a good guy to have a few beers with, however, and he talked more about the Saints than my failure to attend mass on Sundays. Typical salt of the earth guy.
I went into my office and looked though the folder of an open case dealing with industrial espionage. The case was boring thus far but paid well. If you wanted the services of Benjamin Masters, you ponied up a good deal of green.
Two hours later, thirty minutes before Father Ronnie was scheduled to arrive, Tuesday appeared in my doorway.
"Lieutenant Grant just called," she informed me. "I told him you were out of the office, maybe for the rest of the day."
"He was a bit insistent. Says that somebody found a dead girl in a warehouse across the river near Algiers Point. She's hanging upside-down from a steel crossbeam. He says to get your ass over there within the hour."
By now, Grant had surely learned about the murder in New Orleans East. Two danglers in one day. Coincidence? Highly unlikely. And I knew with certainty that some kind of voodoo paraphernalia was lying around the warehouse across the river."
"Duty beckons, doll," I said, getting up from my high-back leather chair.
"I love it when you call me doll," Tuesday said. "It's like all that film noir stuff. Terribly romantic, wouldn't you say?"
One would never have guessed that Tuesday had a Master's degree in forensics from MIT.
Tuesday and I got in the BMW and drove across the Mississippi River Bridge.
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